'Paper or plastic' is now 'computer or cashier'

Morena Michelangelo shops for food in reverse. When she enters her local Stop & Shop supermarket in Quincy, Mass., she meticulously unfolds and lines up six brown bags along the bottom of her shopping cart. And even though she has plenty more groceries to buy, she rings up and bags her chips and soda.

Rather than a backward shopper, Ms. Michelangelo considers herself a progressive one. She uses new technology - a mobile computer and bar-code scanner - that she plucks from a rack and attaches to her shopping cart. It allows her to find, ring up, and bag her groceries as she navigates the aisles. For Michelangelo, the lines, clerks, and "Have a nice day," once intrinsic to grocery shopping, have gone the way of the family tab at the five-and-dime.

"We come here just for the Shopping Buddy," her teenage daughter Melanie says, referring to the portable computer, which greets the Michelangelos by name after it reads their loyalty card. "We've kind of personified him. We call him Buddy."

To remain competitive, supermarkets are revving their technological engines. Eventually, say industry experts, shoppers won't need wallets or scanners.

With Pay by Touch systems and microchips embedded in each product, shopping will be as simple as grab, bag, and get out. Sensors will ring up goods within seconds, and a fingerprint-reading device will enable shoppers to access their accounts without using plastic.

Within a decade, grocery analysts say, the industry will be completely transformed.

"It's really quite fascinating," says Todd Hultquist of the Food Marketing Institute, a trade association. "It's not that far off, actually."

The latest innovation is the hand-held scanner, which stores say makes shopping less time-consuming. After an encouraging pilot program at three Massachusetts Stop & Shop stores, the Shopping Buddies will be installed in 20 others. And a successful run of a similar Shop 'n Scan system at Albertsons stores in Illinois convinced the US grocer to expand the technology to its entire Dallas/Fort Worth market (104 stores) this month.

The gadgets are simple to use: Shoppers select a bag of tortilla chips from the shelf and pass the scanner over the UPC symbol. Immediately, the item and its price appear on a touchscreen at the bottom of a list of other scanned goods.

Michelangelo, who calls herself a "computer dummy," says the system is easy to learn. The other day, she weighed and scanned a bag of red peppers, decided they were too expensive, and took one out. With a touch of a button, she deleted the item, and rescanned the bag. As she adds items to her cart, she can keep track of how much she's spending.

The new contraptions can also order deli items from anywhere in the store, indicate if pharmacy prescriptions or photos are ready for pick up, and help new customers navigate a store. Also, by reading sensors along the ceiling, the devices can display custom-generated discounts in the aisle the shopper is browsing. By tracking consumers' shopping habits, they can remind shoppers about a nearby product they have regularly bought in the past. To safeguard against customers who might "forget" to scan that megapack of toilet paper, stores use surveillance and conduct random checks.

Soon, the wireless computers will provide recipes and be able to electronically retrieve shopping lists created at home, says Mike Grimes, vice president of sales and marketing at Cuesol, a Quincy-based shopping technology company that helped design the Shopping Buddies.

Historically, retailers have always been a bit resistant to new methods, but it's only a matter of time before this new breed of technology becomes a nationwide staple, says Mr. Hultquist.

"Right now, with the recent interest we've seen all over this country, I really think it's going to catch on," says Frank Riso, director of vertical retail marketing at Symbol Technologies, which made the hand-held scanners. A second chain of grocery stores will offer the scanners next month, with another venturing into the futuristic frontier by the end of the year. Already, more than 500 supermarkets across Europe have successfully implemented them.

But the system has a long way to go to attract a shopping majority. Not everyone thinks these new doodads are the best thing since sliced bread. Plowing through Stop & Shop's International Foods section, a Quincy couple say they've already transformed the shopping experience into a science; Joe Sheffer claims that his wife, Jean, can estimate the cost of their weekly trip to within $5. Why use a computer? It would just take more time, they say.

Helen Stevens, rounding a corner with staples in her basket - orange juice, milk, bread, eggs - says she's overwhelmed even by the self-checkout aisle. "I don't know how to do it. It makes me nervous," she says with an exaggerated pout. "I'll be 84 in June. My brain is too full now."

George Whalin, president and CEO of Retail Management Consultants, is also skeptical about the new system. Self checkout is, fundamentally, a tool for reducing labor costs, he says, and the hand-held scanner is another step in that direction.

"There's some real question about pushing technologies on the consumer that the consumer isn't demanding," he says. "Has the customer asked for more control? I don't think so. They're selling the concept the wrong way." Supermarkets should instead create a more pleasant atmosphere, he says, so that shoppers would be encouraged to browse longer. Forget interactive gadgets. Put in better lighting, wider aisles, clearer signage.

Other concerns come from consumers who find it disconcerting to see their shopping history scrolled out on a screen in front of them. The Shopping Buddy will remember if the Michelangelos bought sour cream two weeks ago, and ask if they want more.

"It's a little unnerving, it's like Big Brother," Melanie says. "But you don't have to pay attention to it."

In fact, most retailers allow shoppers to "opt out" of the system and remain relatively anonymous.

In the end, the Michelangelos say they don't mind if Buddy reminds them to buy cereal. "I'm just waiting for him to talk back," Morena Michelangelo says.

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